There are two kinds of sports movies: underdog stories and everything else. The former category is vastly larger than the latter, likely because that’s sort of the archetypal narrative in any genre. The very first shot of Star Wars is a tiny Rebel ship fleeing a massive Imperial cruiser, and yet we know instantly which one we’re going to root for. In terms of sports movies this translates to Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard (not the remake), Rudy, Miracle, The Bad News Bears (not the remake), Chariots of Fire, The Hustler, A League of Their Own, Major League, Breaking Away, Slap Shot, Rocky, Hoosiers, Moneyball, and so on and so on.
One might easily claim that Jerry Maguire, Eight Men Out, The Natural, Field of Dreams, Raging Bull, and other sports movies that don’t fit comfortably into the underdog narrative are more admirable for finding a way to avoid it, but really all of the movies listed above are pretty great (but not the remakes). The question is not “in which category does Eddie the Eagle belong?” because Eddie very definitely belongs with the Underdogs; the question is whether Eddie’s story cuts it to the degree that the old hat storyline takes a backseat to the overall journey.
Things do not start on the most promising note. You’re not an athlete, Eddie is more than a common refrain: it’s practically every line of dialogue. There is zero concern with what Eddie’s having for breakfast, nor with what he’s studying in school, nor with what friends he might have, nor with anything besides you’re not an athlete, Eddie. Eddie, a young lad with his sights set on being an Olympian, is portrayed as one who eats, sleeps, breathes and dreams Olympics. His parents, especially his father, let him know that you’re not an athlete, Eddie. Eddie doesn’t listen because he’s an underdog, and underdogs are notoriously hard of hearing when it comes to other people telling them what they can’t do.
A suspiciously long time later, other characters are introduced. Seriously, the cast list in the credits is like 9 people. All 9 of them state some variation on the line you’re not an athlete, Eddie, and soon we reach the traditional failure montage. Eddie tries and fails and tries and fails and tries and fails over and over, both at ski jumping and at a variety of other events, but he keeps trying because…well, you know.
Taron Egerton, the dashing lead of Kingsman: The Secret Service, gives a somewhat Forrest Gumpy performance as Eddie and is not at all unlikable in the process. His determination is clear, but it’s the wonder he imbues Eddie with that really makes you want him to succeed. There’s this naive little grin that creeps across his face whenever he encounters a new jump, or a new event, or even a new competitor. This last one sets him apart — picture the looks of horror on the faces of the Americans in Miracle as they watch the Russian machine train, or the look of horror on Rocky’s face in Rocky IV as he watches the Russian machine train. Eddie sees an incredible jump from a competitor that he’ll never be able to replicate and yet he grins like he’s just discovered fire.
Eagle then introduces Bronson Peary, a fictional mentor figure played by Hugh Jackman who injects the film with a lot of new ways to get across the you’re not an athlete, Eddie sentiment. After the failure montage, these early scenes with Jackman are the most rote and the most at home in the Underdog Sports Film category. No, says Bronson, I will not be your coach. No, no, no way, never. You’ve got heart, kid, but I’m out of the game for good. No, no, no. Actually, okay, I’ll be your coach. Sighs abound during these scenes, even though Egerton and Jackman are great and director Dexter Fletcher is relatively inventive throughout. It seems Eddie will slip and fall, though, ultimately being just another underdog sports tale in a sea of underdog sports tales. Add to that the fact that Jackman’s character is pure fiction, and there might be a ring of falsehood to the entire affair once all is said and done.
…but, dammit, before all is said and done, before you go and look up the real Eddie Edwards and reflect on how familiar the early scenes of the film felt, there’s a real sense of joy to the back half of Eddie that comes to a pretty thrilling climax. Eddie is frustratingly naive, but every now and then he sticks a landing that makes you wonder if he’s not as naive as you think; Bronson Peary doesn’t even exist, but Jackman gives his usual 100% and that fact ceases to matter; and Eddie the Eagle is nothing new in the world of underdog sports movies, but it’s sort of a blast in the end. Oddly enough, that underdog narrative is sort of how Eddie plays out as a film: for the longest time you don’t think it’ll amount to much, but it absolutely delights in surprising you.